Richard Roper, a prominent public policy leader and recent inductee into the Rutgers University Hall of Distinguished Alumni, reflects on his experience serving in President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
By Sam Starnes GSN’04
Richard Roper tried to reach out to new Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in early 1971, five years before Carter would be elected president. “I was graduating with my master’s degree as he was being sworn in as governor,” says Roper, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Rutgers University–Newark in 1968 and a master’s in public policy from Princeton three years later. “I wrote a letter to him telling him all about my background and the fact that I grew up and attended public schools in Brunswick, Georgia, and that I wanted to have a career in public policy and public affairs.”
Roper, who had moved to New Jersey to attend Rutgers–Newark in 1965, wrote in his letter that he would like to be a part of Carter’s gubernatorial administration in Georgia—but he never received an answer. Seven years later, after Carter had moved into the White House, Roper was recruited by an associate he had worked for to serve in President Carter’s administration. Roper—who had been serving as executive director of the Office of Newark Studies, a city program that Rutgers administered—moved to Washington in January 1978 to become special assistant to Juanita M. Kreps, Carter’s secretary of commerce.
Roper’s first year was spent assisting Kreps, who was the first woman to lead the U.S. Department of Commerce and only the fourth woman in the nation’s history at that time to be appointed to the cabinet. He worked on establishing the National Fire Academy in Maryland, developing messages on the U.S. Census, and representing Kreps on a series of regional governors’ forums that Carter launched to promote international trade. The planning meetings for the forums were held in the White House in the Roosevelt Room, a setting Roper remembers fondly. “Being in the White House and being a part of the history that was America—that was awesome,” Roper says.
After a year, Roper was promoted to be director of the Department of Commerce’s Office of State and Local Government Assistance, which connected state and local governments with federal resources. The assignment included meetings in Alaska and Puerto Rico and many places in between where he represented the Carter Administration. “I was all over the place,” he says. “It was exciting to the extent that I was involved in shaping the department’s agenda with respect to how state and local government agencies could benefit.”
Although Roper never worked directly with Carter, he was “in awe of the guy,” he says. “He was a peanut farmer, but he also was an engineer. And he was a nuclear submarine officer in the Navy. He was not the typical politician.”
‘I was very much impressed with his humanity’
Roper also admired Carter’s commitment to diversity. In addition to Kreps, Carter had appointed Patricia Roberts Harris as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, making her the first African American woman to serve in a president’s cabinet. “He brought a degree of sensitivity to the role of presidential leadership that acknowledged that America was diverse, and his administration needed to be a bit more inclusive than those who preceded him,” Roper says.
Roper says that Carter’s warmth extended to all in his administration. “I felt comfortable with Jimmy Carter because he showed an appreciation for people like myself,” Roper says. “He didn’t project an air of superiority and he didn’t project a sense that his status in the world mattered more than the status of others with whom he came into contact. I was very much impressed with his humanity.”
Roper left the Carter Administration in January 1979 when he accepted a position as director of the Program for New Jersey Affairs at Princeton University, a step in his celebrated career in public policy that eventually included directing planning for the Port Authority of New York and New York. Even though his stint in Carter’s administration was only two years, he says it had a profound impact on his career.
Roper says he continued to follow the former president’s work after Carter left the White House. “I was very much impressed with how he managed to stay the course as an actor on the national and the international stage,” Roper says, noting Carter’s work with Habitat for Humanity, monitoring elections to promote democracy, and the Carter Center. “He was just an amazing guy.”
For more about Roper’s career and longtime support of Rutgers, which includes his generous gift establishing a scholarship, read “A Lifetime of Impact” and watch his Hall of Distinguished Alumni induction video.
Please consider making a gift to the Richard W. Roper Undergraduate Scholarship in Civic Responsibility that provides internship funding for Rutgers–Newark undergraduates.